Bapu’s Things

As all good Gandhians—and Gandhian scholars—know, the closing sentiment expressed in Gandhi’s autobiography, published as a book in its English translation in 1927–29, was his desire “to reduce himself to zero.” In the year that the second volume of the autobiography was published, Gandhi received an interesting letter from Basil Mathews, the Geneva-based editor of World’s Youth, who wrote the Mahatma to let him know that a global inquiry conducted among “hundreds of boys from a large number of countries”—Asian, European, American, and African—showed that “they consider you the greatest man living.” In his return message to these young admirers scattered across the world, Gandhi responded on 8 June 1927 as follows: “Truth and Love have been jointly the guiding principle of my life…. Love can only be expressed fully when man reduces himself to a cipher. This process of reduction to cipher is the highest effort man or woman is capable of making. It is the only effort worth making, and it is possible only through ever-increasing self-restraint.” Five years later in My Early Life (1932)—a much-abridged version of his earlier autobiography meant explicitly for “boys in Indian schools”—Gandhi made sure that his potential young readers learned about “the magic spell of a book” that brought about “an instantaneous and practical transformation of my life.” The book was John Ruskin’s Unto This Last (1860), which launched Gandhi on a lifetime of service. Such a life was also only possible when he reduced himself to zero, minimizing his dependence on material goods and desires, so that he was freed up for service to humanity.

So, from around 1904, as he also went on to tell the young readers of My Early Life, Gandhi embarked on a life of simplicity and freedom from excess, progressively shedding extraneous possessions. Over the years, the ordinary things he held on to became, paradoxically, objects of great beauty in the works of many an Indian artist, as in Haku Shah’s Gandhi and His Things (Fig. 2) which assembles his spectacles and his waist-watch, his staff, and his sandals, as does noted painter Krishen Khanna’s sketch which also throws in for good measure his pen, inkpot, and notebook, not to mention the ubiquitous charkha, the spinning wheel (Fig. 3). The words inscribed in English around the margins of Khanna’s sketch—Ahimsa, Truth, Simplicity, Love, Tolerance, Self-Reliance—signal the artist’s sense that these lofty Gandhian ideals are somehow pegged to these paltry possessions. In Vadodara-based Gulammohammed Sheikh’s stunning large canvas, Ahmedabad: The City Gandhi Left Behind, the viewer is invited—as if on a treasure hunt—to search for the objects that had been close to the Mahatma: his watch (stopped at 5:10 pm, the near time of his murder), his eating bowl and plate, his spectacles (and their case), and his sandals, all scattered around his modest home in Sabarmati Ashram (Fig. 4). In the words of the artist himself, he was compelled to make this painting as he was working on another project related to the city of Ahmedabad. “I chanced upon the news of an auction with photographs of Gandhiji’s prized possessions published in the Sunday magazine section of The Hindu. The spectacles, slippers, a watch, a metal bowl and a plate of this faqir who did not possess a penny sold at phenomenal prices. The images of these objects inserted in the ashen grey map of Ahmedabad continue to float before my eyes: a bodiless being with spectacles [without] the face, slippers without a foot, clutching a watch and holding an empty bowl and plate, staggers to soothe the sighs of souls gone to bed hungry.”

In the immediate aftermath of Gandhi’s murder in January 1948, a nationwide search began for bits and pieces of his past, including his few personal possessions which came to be enshrined in various Gandhi museums across the country, including Mani Bhavan Gandhi Sangrahalaya (Fig. 5; Fig. 6). It is likely that Mumbai’s child artists who participated in the museum’s painting competitions got to see these objects in the display cases and these provided for them a model to draw upon in their own work when they were invited to do so over many years (2003, 2007, 2008, 2012, 2015, and 2017). Gandhi’s spectacles—something that gave him such a distinctive iconographic look—appear frequently in their paintings especially in recent years, given that these have also been appropriated by the Government of India’s Clean India campaign (Swachh Bharat Mission) and made ubiquitous across the country (digital album, 180, 181, 185; see also 157). And of course, his spinning wheel (charkha) is the most popular object that is repeatedly seen in the children’s paintings, and on which subject they were invited to paint over many years (2000, 2005, 2008, 2009, 2012, 2014, 2015).

Two other objects amongst the few possessions that their Bapu touched seem to have received the children’s special attention, eighth-grader Prasanthi of the Modern English School bringing them both together within the same frame (Fig. 10).

One of them is Bapu’s waist-watch: Gandhi’s obsession with (clock) time is well known, he hated being late and in fact his last moments on earth were spent fretting over the fact that he was running late for his prayer meeting. From the time he went to England to study to be a barrister, Gandhi seems to have had a fondness for watches, and quite clearly made an exception in this regard in his vows of non-possession (aparigraha). When specifically questioned about this by an interviewer in 1931 on his visit to England, he responded, “I must know what time it is, consequently, I must use a watch. Moreover, I am doing nothing against my principles. I am an enemy not of mechanism but of organized mechanism. I consider this system, which has become the basis of your civilization, as the greatest danger which could menace man. If I use a watch, that does not mean that I am its slave. But when it is a question of the machine organized, man becomes its slave and loses all of the values with which the Lord endowed him.” He was particularly fond of a waist-watch gifted to him by Gujarati industrialist and Gandhian Narottam Morarjee, and also one gifted to him by young Indira, daughter of his political heir Jawaharlal Nehru, which he used for some 20 years before it was stolen. So, when fourth-grader Ambuj sketches him with his watch dangling close to his heart, the young artist is really capturing how dear such an object was to Bapu (Fig. 11).

The other object to which Gandhi became apparently very attached was acquired rather late in his life, and was a gift he received around 1940, a statuette of three monkeys. “I have a beautiful figure of three monkeys, which I always keep in front of me. They are three representations of the same monkey. His ears, mouth and eyes are closed. The lesson the figure teaches is that one should not listen to criticism of or see or speak of anybody’s defects. The original of this figure is found on a tall pillar in Japan, and was carved thousands of years ago. We should engrave this lesson in our hearts.” The object might have come late into his life, but he appears to have taken childlike delight in it, referring to it over and over again in the last few years of his life in correspondence with friends and family, especially young children, calling the monkeys his three gurus, or preceptors. In turn, the child artists of Mumbai pay tribute by painting their Bapu’s favourite three monkeys over and again (digital album, 212, 213; Fig. 10; Fig. 13).

Select References

Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi 33: 452, 492; 48: 386; 74: 304.
M.K. Gandhi, My Early Life (1869–1914), Arranged and Edited by Mahadev Desai. Bombay: Oxford University Press, 1932;
M.K. Gandhi, An Autobiography, or the Story of My Experiments with Truth, translated from the Original in Gujarati by Mahadev Desai, Introduced with Notes by Tridip Suhrud. Gurgaon: Penguin Random House India, 2018.

Gulammohammed Sheikh, “Reading Gandhi in Our Time.” Social Scientist 47, no. 3–4 (March–April 2019): 3–7.